AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Texas continues to expand its offering of COVID-19 vaccinations to people 65 and older and even younger people with chronic medical conditions, likely thousands of vulnerable people in long-term care facilities are still waiting for their first dose.
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) classified workers and residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities as Phase 1A recipients of the vaccine — the top-priority group alongside healthcare workers. At the end of December, DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt urged providers to begin vaccinating people in Phase 1B, too.
Meanwhile, families from several different nursing homes across the state began reaching out to KXAN Investigators with concerns — claiming their loved ones still had not been vaccinated.
Caitlyn Taylor’s grandmother lives in the skilled nursing area at Buckner Villas senior living community in Austin. She said her grandmother was thrilled to hear CVS would be coming to distribute the vaccines at the end of December — only to find out they had come and gone, leaving her unvaccinated.
“She is a bit angry. An angry 92-year-old is something to behold,” Taylor said.
A spokesperson for Buckner Villas confirmed to KXAN that CVS only arrived with enough doses to vaccinate half of the residents in the skilled nursing portion of their community. All of the assisted living and memory care residents who wanted the vaccine were able to get their first dose at that time, as well as 75 healthcare employees.
“Our community was at the mercy of the limited number of doses the pharmacy had in stock at the time of our first assigned vaccine clinic on Dec. 29,” said Doyle Antle, executive director of Buckner Villas.
He explained CVS is scheduled to return Jan. 12 to finish providing first doses to all of their residents in skilled nursing.
The vast majority of the state’s long-term care facilities are enrolled in the Federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care — providing vaccine distribution through the CDC utilizing CVS and Walgreens. Texas health officials activated this program Dec. 28.
KXAN Investigators have requested data from the CDC regarding how many homes have received their first round of vaccinations. CDC data shows 511,635 people nationwide have been vaccinated through the program, but the agency couldn’t provide regional numbers. A spokesperson said more data would be available in the coming weeks.
CVS indicated it has faced challenges with the distribution process. In a news release this week, the company noted the actual number of residents in nursing communities was about 20 to 30% lower than predicted based on bed count. They also noted uptake among staff was “low.” The company also plans to release updated data on the rollout every few days.
The data reveals 581 of the state’s more than 1,200 skilled nursing facilities have partnered with CVS. So far, the pharmacy reports they have distributed the first dose to 199 of these facilities. 180 more facilities have been scheduled for their vaccination through next week.
However, more than 200 skilled nursing facilities are still waiting to hear when their vaccines will arrive from CVS.
Of the 1,431 assisted living facilities and other long-term care sites working with CVS, only 340 have completed distribution of the first doses. 491 more have been scheduled through next week, leaving 600 long-term care facilities also waiting.
“Despite these challenges we remain on schedule, and the number of vaccines we administer will continue to rise as more [communities] are activated by the states,” CVS Health President and CEO Larry Merlo stated in the release.
Walgreens will be vaccinating another large percentage of Texas homes through the federal program, but KXAN Investigators are still working to obtain data and an update on their progress.
CVS and Walgreens have both pledged to complete the first round of shots at these communities across the country by Jan. 25.
In a letter to families this week, the senior vice president of Buckner Retirement Services Charlie Wilson said the schedule for their vaccination clinics depended on the state and these pharmacies. He wrote, “The situation is unfolding very similar to when HHSC oversaw the reopening of our health care areas – fragmented. Not only are we seeing different rollouts and priorities across Texas, but we are experiencing different information from pharmacies and even their own employees.”
Antle explained Buckner Villas staff had been “on the phone daily” with the state and CVS to obtain vaccine doses for every resident and staff member in their community who wants one — including their residents in independent senior living.
“We are continuing to communicate with CVS around the clock and advocate for all our residents and associates to be able to receive the first dose of the vaccine, and we are hopeful it will happen soon,” he said.
KXAN Investigators requested data from Texas DSHS, as well.
A spokesperson for the agency said, “It is important to understand that vaccine supply is limited by the manufacturers’ capacity to produce it.”
She went on to explain a total of 487,500 doses were pulled out of the state’s allocation during the initial weeks of the vaccine rollout and set them aside for long-term care facilities’ vaccination clinics. She said the “remaining vaccine” was then distributed to other providers throughout the state to vaccinate people in Phase 1A and 1B.
“Please remember that Texas receives more vaccine every week, but it will take some time to get everyone vaccinated,” the spokesperson said.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission said they were assisting DSHS and were in the process of setting up a system for these facilities to report their vaccination data to the state.
Another DSHS spokesperson told KXAN it will “take time” to vaccinate even everyone in these priority groups, adding they “appreciate people’s patience.”
George Linial, President of the senior living advocacy group LeadingAge Texas said the majority of its members report a smooth vaccine rollout, although some facilities are still waiting. He noted that the industry, and the residents living at these homes, were some of the people in the country most affected by the pandemic — calling vaccine access a “sigh of relief.”
He said, “We’re just happy that long-term care front line health workers are at the top of the list. So we want to make sure they get vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
Still, Taylor said it has been frustrating to watch other Texans get vaccinated before her high-risk grandmother. So far, it hasn’t felt like her grandmother is being prioritized.
“She needs people to hold her hand and hug her. None of that can go on as long as she’s unvaccinated.”
IN-DEPTH: How many homes are not enrolled in the federal program?
The office of Governor Greg Abbott told KXAN the state will deploy teams to assist with vaccinations at long-term care facilities that did not enroll in the federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program.
According to data obtained previously by KXAN Investigators, that could include as many as 108 skilled nursing facilities and 1,430 other types of long-term care facilities.
35 skilled nursing homes and 19 other long-term care facilities enrolled as vaccine providers themselves — meaning they will receive vaccine shipments directly at their facility.